Exclusive: Is satellite footage of attacked Iran facility being blocked?

It is possible that few US satellite imagery services withheld images of Iran's nuclear facility in Natanz.

Warehouse fire along Karaj Special Road near Tehran, July 5, 2021 (photo credit: VAHID AHMADI/TASNIM NEWS AGENCY)
Warehouse fire along Karaj Special Road near Tehran, July 5, 2021
It is starting to look like certain US satellite imagery services may have withheld high-resolution images of Iran’s nuclear facility at Karaj on June 23, which Tehran eventually blamed on Israel.
Although services like Maxar provided high-resolution images of the Natanz nuclear facility within several days of its being hit in July 2020, nearly a month after the Karaj attack, they have not done so.
Industry sources are cautious about drawing conclusions – there are always unpredictable technical issues in the field of imagery – but viewed the absence of high-resolution images so long after the attack as very unusual.
Maxar was contacted but did not respond regarding the issue.
One reason it is possible that US companies might withhold such images could be that their primary customer is the US government, and it could, even informally, send certain “shutter control” signals.
Why all of this would be occurring is even more speculative, but one reason could be to help the Islamic Republic preserve the veneer of mild damage to its nuclear program.
The US wants to cut a deal with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, and part of getting to yes with the regime may be various face-saving measures.
If the ayatollahs wish to present the deal to their public as occurring from a position of strength and not desperation, they might want to cover up how badly the Karaj nuclear facility was damaged.
In terms of what actually happened at Karaj, the extent of the damage to Iran’s nuclear program is still under debate.
However, a review of Iran’s conduct in this and similar cases of low-resolution imagery and of knowledgeable sources leans toward the conclusion that major harm was caused.
On June 23, Iran tried to play down the attack and said there had been a failed attempt nearly all day, until The Jerusalem Post first reported, based on knowledgeable sources, that evening that the attack had caused major damage.
Other media, including The New York Times, later reported a variety of details about the attack.
By June 27, Institute for Science and International Security president David Albright had told the Post that low-resolution imagery showed damage in a corner of one of the buildings at Karaj.
However, hours later Albright said that the imagery was inconclusive.
On June 29, Albright said that additional low-resolution imagery seemed to show damage at the far west end of a building used to manufacture bellows for advanced centrifuges.
By mid-July, Albright said that the roof was back on the building. He expressed frustration that there was no high-resolution US imagery from the time period when the roof was off, which would have allowed a clear look at the damage inside.
Albright also said in mid-July that an image from the French company Airbus showed that there may have been a fire inside – an episode that likely could have destroyed key equipment, materials and centrifuge components.
Although on July 6 Iran claimed that only the roof was damaged, in both the Karaj and Natanz cases, the Islamic Republic has prevented inspectors from surveying the damage in real time.
Also, Tehran’s narrative of limited damage to the roof is less credible because it came after its original lie that there was no damage at all.
Further, Iran recently cut back IAEA access to Natanz, seemingly to cover up that the facility is even more heavily damaged, and that its uranium enrichment pace has been substantially reduced.
Finally, the July 6 changed narrative by the Islamic Republic seemed to be a response to reports about images produced by Intel Lab.
Images taken on June 26 showed a small dark spot on the roof of the building that was not there in images taken June 21.
By July 1, images portrayed the roof as being dismantled as part of cleaning.
After all of that, there are no clear conclusions to be drawn yet.
But there is a strong likelihood that the attacker of Karaj caused heavy damage, and that Iran, and possibly US imagery companies, are looking to play it down.